story by Paul Wood
photos by Monte Costa
Nearly a million drivers a year pass through the Ko‘olau, the greatest taro-growing region on Maui and perhaps—because it has been farmed in the same way by the same families right through all the cataclysmic changes of Island history—the most important living relic in all of Hawai‘i.
It flashes along the road to Hana in a few scenic glimpses. Suddenly there’s Ke‘anae—a lava peninsula that juts like a fat thumb almost a mile into the sea. Then, there goes Wailua Nui—an exceptionally wide valley mouth confined on each side by sea-thrusting ridges. Most drivers slalom through without understanding the place. How could they? The Ko‘olau has few places for the visitor to visit, few places even to stop the car. There are three scenic overlooks, each one limited to a few vehicles. From them you look down hundreds of feet to see the pond-farms of old Hawai‘i, the landscapes that fed a great culture. You see lo‘i, shining rectangles of channeled streamwater, laid out like playing cards slapped down from the dealer's deck. You see that about half of these lo‘i are grassed-over, no longer under cultivation. There’s no village; few residents in sight. You might instantly wonder: Is the place headed for collapse?
Or is it hanging on by its fingertips?
Then you might wonder: Or is it actually a flag of promise, a reminder of what we are all supposed to be doing? Is it we, not the taro farmers, who have slipped out of sync with life?
Depending on whom you talk to, the answer to all of these questions is yes.
The kahawai (natural stream) that runs through Kyle Nakanelua’s taro farm feeds his plants then crashes down on the side of the Hana road and rushes beneath it, flowing down to water the lo‘i of Wailua Nui far below. The traffic passes so close here that, if you wanted, you could leap down onto the unsuspecting roofs of the many tourist vans that pass. “Sometimes I stand on that edge and watch the traffic,” says Kyle. “People drive by and don’t even notice I’m there. I like that.”
Although it is set on a vertiginous rainforest slope, the farm is surprisingly open to the sky, wide and almost flat, full of clean, gleaming ponds connected by narrow deep rivulets. The earth is moist, almost spongy, and covered with a buzz-cut of broad-leafed grass that curves with the land meticulously down to every water-edge. There’s a stand of fat-stemmed sugarcane and a few banana clumps. There’s a small plywood house built up on concrete blocks, the open lower level for tools and workrooms. Around the house grows an old mango tree, red and green ti, a large ‘awa bush and a coconut that’s loaded with nuts, not at all like the safety-trimmed trees you see in downtown parking lots. Three mallard ducks come gabbling out from under the house, swaying like saloon-buddies, heading out to hunt for snails in the lo‘i.